Seeing Matt Hegarty in the starting lineup against Stanford may have been one of the moments of the season. The junior lineman was almost out of football completely, a year after suffering a stroke during a November practice that had him worrying about his life far before his football career.
But Hegarty returned from the scary situation that stemmed from two undetected holes in his heart that were surgically repaired after the stroke. And after slowly returning from rehabilitation and surgery, Hegarty played his way into the two-deep and found himself as the team’s starting center once Nick Martin went down with a knee injury against BYU.
The former blue-chip recruit enters his senior season still behind Martin, but very much in the plans along the offensive line.
Let’s take a closer look at the senior from New Mexico.
6'4.5" 300 lbs.
Senior, No. 77
Hegarty was among the top offensive linemen in the country, a Top 75 player by every measure and a finalist for the Anthony Munoz lineman of the year award at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Hegarty had offers from some elite places out of New Mexico, choosing Notre Dame over Texas, USC, Florida State, LSU, Oklahoma and more.
While recruiting analysts projected a left tackle with highly intriguing athleticism, Hegarty started his career on the interior of the offensive line, with Brian Kelly talking about his tremendous agility and ability to move in space on Signing Day.
“We saw him move and felt like he was our target right away at the offensive line position,” Kelly said back in February 2011. “And you’ll be able to see that with his athleticism. He’s a left tackle here. See him pull. As you know, we like to move our linemen. The film that sold us is his ability to move in space and then arrive physically, square up, with good body position and finish off. He will finish his blocks, periods. He finishes things off.”
Freshman Season (2011): Did not see game action.
Sophomore Season (2012): Saw playing time in the season’s first nine games, primarily on special teams. Transitioned to center and played behind Braxston Cave after moving to the position during spring practice.
Junior Season (2013): Saw action in 12 games, starting against both Stanford and Rutgers. Held his own against BYU after replacing Martin, when the Irish offense line ran for a season-high 235 yards and didn’t allow a sack in 28 passing attempts, even with fellow newcomers Conor Hanratty and Steve Elmer playing key roles.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine Hegarty playing to his recruiting ranking, when he was considered among the elite players in the country. But this is also a prime example of why star-ratings should be taken with a huge grain of salt, particularly along the offensive and defensive line.
That being said, Hegarty has a lot of football left, and that he’s even playing football right now -- and doing so at a high level -- is really amazing. He spent spring in the starting lineup at center while Nick Martin recovered from his knee injury. That kept us from seeing if Hegarty has what it takes to be a reserve guard as well, but he very likely could be the next man in at three positions, competing with Conor Hanratty for the job behind Christian Lombard and Steve Elmer.
I’m of the mind that Hegarty is too good of a football player not to see significant action. While it’s difficult to rotate centers, getting Hegarty a few series at guard wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, especially if it helps keep Elmer and Lombard fresh. And I think his athleticism will make him the first in at all three interior positions, edging out fellow senior Hanratty for that job.
With two seasons of eligibility remaining, Hegarty is another candidate for a fifth year, and another litmus test for the coaching staff to see what they value -- veteran experience or another young prospect in recruiting. The Irish could go either way: Push a youngster like Hunter Bivin up and let Hegarty walk, or keep Hegarty and potentially start him at guard.
In many ways, Hegarty is another victim of the Irish’s success up front with Harry Hiestand, a player who would’ve likely been a multi-year starter early in Brian Kelly’s regime, but who now finds himself an important part of the Irish’s excellent depth on the offensive line.
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